Ella and Paul Hartley’s lifestyle characterises the lifestyle of many South African middle-class whites. Their neat small home is in Sasolburg’s suburbia. They have three children. He works, she is a housewife and they have two pet dogs.
But two things set them apart: they are both HIV positive and they exude a confidence and optimism often missing from white South African households.
Ella and Paul said they had a “moment of shock” when Paul (32) was diagnosed HIV positive in September 1998.
Paul found out after having gone for a medical examination for an insurance policy. His diagnosis prepared Ella (30), who was pregnant, for bad news and in December 1998 her tests confirmed that she too was HIV positive.
Paul is not prepared to speculate on who gave him the virus. He says he could have been infected after his divorce when he “slept around” with a couple of “one night stands” or while he was still married to his first wife. Paul doesn’t know and doesn’t dwell on it: “What’s the point, it doesn’t help to point fingers at who ever gave it to me?”
Despite the diagnosis, Paul and Ella are happy to recount their blessings. They are happily married, they have remained relatively healthy although neither are taking any antiretroviral drugs to slow the development of HIV; their families are generally caring; work colleagues accommodating and they have had the medical support and the compassion of the team of AIDS health workers at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.
Paul has been fortunate because his employers, Sasol, are supportive, he is on their medical aid and he is given time off for sick leave.
The couple has made it a policy to be open and honest about being HIV positive. “We talk about it to everybody and generally people are supportive.”
“People living with HIV can make a difference in the world. Only people living with it can change people’s perceptions about the disease,” Ella says. But like all people living with HIV they have stories about family, friends and acquaintances who refuse to accept them.
“This (being HIV positive) is apartheid,” Ella says. Her brother will have nothing to do with them, while intially her mother rejected her as “a whore”.There are those who won’t have a cup of coffee at her home or shake hands.
But they don’t generally preach. Rather, they recount their own experiences to help people understand about safe sex. “We tell people there is no such thing as safe sex. A condom makes it safer, but is a far from a foolproof method of preventing Aids.”